Last year the world watched as Arab Spring protesters used the Internet and social media to organize demonstrations and to share them in real time across the globe, toppling Middle East dictators and reordering human history.
This year, technology and social media sites, most visibly Facebook and Twitter, continue to have a dramatic impact on the political world.
In January, millions of people signed online petitions and contacted members of Congress protesting efforts to pass poorly crafted legislation on online piracy. Lawmakers were forced to withdraw the bills. Similarly the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation was forced to reverse course on Planned Parenthood after a massive public outcry over its suspension of funding to the organization. And an international firestorm ensued after a small not-for-profit organization called Invisible Children brought attention to its cause—and in some cases not-so-welcome scrutiny upon itself—after it posted its Kony 2012 documentary.
More and more, social media are challenging institutions and the people who run them. The effects are echoing in the traditional chambers of political opinion-making, leaving TV pundits, talk-radio hosts, editorial page editors, political leaders, and others struggling to react and make sense of the new reality of citizens’ ability to make themselves heard quickly and loudly with just a few clicks on an app.
The situation has many in power complaining. New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg recently said, “We are basically having a referendum on every single thing that we do every day”—making governing for the long term hard or impossible.
Instead of complaining, the mayor should be cheering.
For decades, Americans have lamented the lack of citizen participation, exhibited recently by fewer than 57 percent of eligible voters making it to the polls in 2008, and only about 38 percent showing up in 2010.
There are reasons for citizens to be too discouraged to turn out on Election Day. With the gerrymandering of electoral districts our representatives pick their voters, instead of the other way around. Voter-registration efforts are under attack, and ballot access is being limited rather than expanded. If office holders really wanted to increase voter turnout, why don’t they move elections to Saturday, instead of having them on Tuesday when the majority of us are working?
For many of us, civic participation is abstract, hard to do, harder to understand, and deeply frustrating. Politics has become highly partisan, polarizing, and depressing. Much of this can be traced to the corrupting influence of money in politics.
It is estimated that Congress alone will again haul in more than $2 billion in campaign contributions this year. That doesn’t include the money that will be raised for presidential, state, and local elections. And since much of that funding comes as a result of taking strong ideological positions, it’s no surprise that our politics is so warped and we are so jaded.
There is another way. Social media and related technologies offer citizens another path to engage on the issues they care about. The ability to connect and share ideas is exponentially greater now than in the eras dominated by telephones, television, or print media. In addition, the cost of creating and distributing content continues to fall. The building blocks for experimentation and dissemination of new approaches to politics, government, and civic engagement are available to all. By connecting with friends, neighbors, and like-minded people, as well as those with whom you disagree, you are able to see and feel a sense of connection, a sense of participation. You can learn something, and maybe even get something done. It may not be pretty or always polite, but neither are town halls or other public meetings where citizens speak out.
So far, it may seem that the Internet makes it easier for people to collectively say “no,” rather than articulate and easily distribute an alternative viewpoint or build something and effectively say “yes.” But let’s give the technology time to mature. It is still a brand new tool in the hands of a citizenry frustrated with the status quo. Look for an “Internet Public” to emerge over the next few years that will continue to disrupt politics as usual and demand more transparency, fairness, equity, and participation. At that point, politicians and their institutions will either quickly adapt or become more obsolete—perhaps even extinct. To survive in the new age, they will need to encourage citizen engagement and embrace any and every tool that gives more voice to more people.
Those who adapt will be rewarded by a new “constituency of the connected,” one that is already well on its way to building a 21st-century democracy rooted not in the power of “Me,” but in the power of “We.”
Andrew Rasiej is the founder of Personal Democracy Media and co-founder of TechPresident. Contact him at [email protected] or @Rasiej on twitter. This essay was first published in the Philadelphia Inquirer April 15, 2012.